HARRISBURG — Senator Lisa Baker, Chair of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, issued the following statement on the department consolidation plan offered by Governor Wolf:
“The goals of streamlining bureaucracy, improving service delivery, and saving money are certainly appealing to state legislators and taxpayers. So the initial reaction to Governor Wolf’s proposal to merge the departments of Human Services, Health, Aging, and Drug and Alcohol has been cautiously receptive.
The Senate budget hearing with the four departments earlier this week was revealing mostly in how much we do not know and how much work remains in filling in the details. Given the number of programs, employees, and dollars involved, this is an immensely complicated undertaking, with an incredibly short time frame for the transition. Specifics are requisite for legislative review and action. Consolidation can optimistically be seen as combining and aligning strengths, but it can skeptically be seen as throwing problems and weaknesses into a common pot and hoping for a better mix of results.
A quick look at the proposal ascertained that much of the projected savings could be accomplished irrespective of the merger. Even at that, efficiency has to be the foremost consideration. If coordination helps in combating the opioid crisis, for example, then that would be a large positive.
One of the more difficult transitions is closing the state health centers and establishing replacement partnerships with local agencies. This is going to be particularly challenging in rural parts of the state, where access to health care is a long-running, overriding concern.
If the duplication in operations is enough to reduce staffing by the projected 522 positions, that is an attractive feature in tight funding times. But here again, the standard approaches to workforce reduction do not generally guarantee the right people depart. State government cannot afford to have its most capable and experienced people leave as this process unfolds.
In terms of some of the more technical aspects, squaring away overlapping contracts seems a complex and time-consuming undertaking.
Change of this dimension is susceptible to lawsuits from those who prefer the status quo or those who feel disadvantaged in the transition. So there will presumably have to be assurances offered the various stakeholders to prevent litigation that could disrupt the timetable or whittle the savings.
The challenges of running such a sizable organization, navigating all the hazards of substantial internal and external transitions, and making sure that the day-to-day operations match up with citizen needs are going to raise the ante on the capabilities of the leadership team. Somewhere along the line the administration will have to preview the reconstituted management team for this sprawling enterprise.
Because the programs run under these four departments are among the most crucial in state government, the Senate Health and Human Services Committee will be holding public hearings across the state in the coming weeks. The views of service providers and recipients are indispensable to assessing how advisable and workable this proposal will be.
Even with the many unknowns attaching to this plan, the larger potential disruption involves the federal effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. That is a wildcard state officials do not control.
The good news for citizens is that state government, compelled by serious fiscal difficulties, is taking a hard look at doing things differently. However, this discussion has a way to go before a vote is taken. It is simply too early to predict what the full plan will look like, how practical it will be, and how much difficulty will be encountered in implementing it.”
To stay informed, or to offer your input, please visit www.senatorbaker.com
Andrew M. Seder